Child labour is, generally speaking, work by children that harms them or exploits them in some way - physically, mentally, morally, or by blocking their access to education.
However, there is no universally accepted definition of child labour. Varying definitions of the term are used by international organisations, non-governmental organisations, trade unions and other interest groups. Writers and speakers don’t always specify what definition they are using, often leading to confusion.
To avoid confusion, when writing or speaking about "child labour", it is best to explain exactly what you mean by child labour — or, if someone else is speaking, ask for a definition. This website uses the first definition cited in this section: "Child labour" is work for children under age 18 that in some way harms or exploits them - physically, mentally, morally, or by blocking access to education.
Who Is a "Child"?
International conventions define children as people aged 18 and under. Individual governments may define "child" according to different ages or other criteria. "Child" and "childhood" are also defined differently by different cultures. A "child" is not necessarily defined by a fixed age. Social scientists point out that children’s abilities and maturities vary so much that defining a child’s maturity by calendar age can be misleading.
Who Are Child Labourers and How Many Are There?
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), "215 million children under 18 work, many fulltime. In Sub Saharan African 1 in 4 children aged 5-17 work, compared to 1 in 8 in Asia Pacific and 1 in 10 in Latin America." Moreover, some 8.4 million children were engaged in so-called 'unconditional' worst forms of child labour, which include forced and bonded labour, the use of children in armed conflict, trafficking in children and commercial sexual exploitation. Unicef’s State of the World’s Children Report says that although the exact number is not known, it is surely in the hundreds of millions. More information about who child labourers are, where they live, and new statistics on the total number can be found here.
According to figures from the University of Iowa, 53 per cent of child labourers live in Asia and the Pacific, 30 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, and seven per cent in Latin America.
What Do Child Labourers Do?
According to the ILO, 58.6 per cent of child labourers work in agriculture. Other industries that frequently rely on child labour include maufacturing, mining, quarrying, construction, domestic service and general service such as in retail, restaurants and hotels.
It is generally thought that boys become involved in child labour more often than girls, although exact figures on this can be difficult to estimate. As UNICEF states: "Although aggregate numbers suggest that more boys than girls are involved in child labour, many of the types of work girls are involved in are invisible. It is estimated that roughly 90 per cent of children involved in domestic labour are girls."
What Are Some Myths and Misunderstandings About Child Labour?
In 1997, UNICEF listed four myths surrounding child labour which included:
- child labour is only a problem in developing countries
- child labour will disappear when poverty disappears
- most child labourers work in sweatshops
- boycotts and pressuring governments is the only way to stop child labour
You can read more about these myths here.
World Vision recently released a report on the myths about child labour, outlining how child labour is actually a hindrance to economic growth and attempting to breakdown some of the (mainly Western) preconceptions that anyone involved in child labour "chooses" to be there.
What Causes Child Labour Today?
Poverty is widely considered the top reason that children work in jobs that are exploitative and inappropriate for their ages. But there are other reasons as well. In no particular order:
- family expectations and traditions
- abuse of the child
- lack of good schools and day care
- lack of other services, such as health care
- public opinion that downplays the risk of early work for children
- uncaring attitude of employers
- limited choices for women
"The parents of child labourers are often unemployed or underemployed, desperate for secure employment and income. Yet it is their children - more powerless and paid less - who are offered the jobs." In other words, says UNICEF in their 1997 "Roots of child labour" report, children are employed because they are easier to exploit.
Other factors that contibute to instances of child labour include:
- limited access to compulsory, free education
- irregular monitoring and weak enforcement of relevant laws
- local laws that include a lot of exemptions
- globalisation and an emphasis on low labour costs
- inability to uphold workers' and child rights
What Are Some Solutions to The Problem of Child Labour?
Many children in hazardous and dangerous jobs are in danger of injury or even death. Between 2000 and the year 2020, the vast majority of new workers, citizens and new consumers — whose skills and needs will build the world’s economy and society — will come from developing countries. Over that 20-year period, some 730 million people will join the world’s workforce — more than all the people employed in the most developed nations in 2000. More than 90 per cent of these new workers will be from developing nations, according to research by Population Action International.
In order to fairly and adequately meet the needs of this growing workforce and not rely on child labour, a few things must be prioritised, namely:
- increased family incomes
- education — that helps children learn skills that will help them earn a living
- social services — that help children and families survive crises, such as disease, or loss of home and shelter
- family control of fertility — so that families are not burdened by children
The ILO’s International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) has explored many programs to help child labourers. You can check out the IPEC documents on the ILO site. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child calls for children to participate in important decisions that will affect their lives.
Some educators and social scientists believe that one of the most important ways to help child workers is to ask their opinions, and involve them in constructing "solutions" to their own problems. Strong advocates of this approach are: Boyden, Myers and Ling; Concerned for Working Children in Karnataka, India; many children’s "unions" and "movements," and the Save the Children family of non-governmental organisations.
Want to do your bit to help fight child labour around the world? Check out the aVOID plug-in now to ensure your online shopping is fair and slavery free.
And for a concise and comprehensive overview of the issue of forced labour and slavery among children and adults around the world, click through to our article: Human Trafficking in the 21st Century.